Moriarty, retconned: The Valley of Fear (#SFWApro)

THE VALLEY OF FEAR, the final Sherlock Holmes novel, is Sherlockians’ best evidence that the Canon is, in a way, not canon. When Moriarty debuts in The Final Problem, Watson has never heard of him; in this retcon novel, set three years or so earlier, he’s fully familiar with the Napoleon of Crime.

(By the way, this is full of spoilers, so be warned).

The opening, as seen in the image (by Frank Wiles) has Holmes receive a message in code from Porlock, a lowly drone in Moriarty’s hive of criminal industry. Worried his boss suspects him, Porlock unfortunately doesn’t send the follow-up letter identifying the book the cipher refers to (the numbers refer to words on various pages). Holmes, being Holmes, identifies the book, then cracks the code: something is going to happen to a Mr. Douglas at Birlstone Manor. And sure enough, Inspector MacDonald (like Baynes in His Last Bow, he’s one of Doyle’s capable detectives) shows up to report Douglas has been murdered.

What follows is a surprisingly straight murder mystery. We have the body, we have the clues, we have the details that don’t fit (why did the killer remove Douglas’ wedding ring, then restore the ring that was above it on the finger?), and Holmes has to put them together. There’s no chasing or pursuing as happens in Study in Scarlet and Sign of Four, nor as many diversions as in Dartmoor in Hound of the Baskervilles. It turns out the victim is actually Douglas’ killer, shot with his own gun. After years of running from his enemies (as established earlier in the story), Douglas saw a chance to fake his death and thereby end the hunt.

Who was he running from? Much like Scarlet, Part II takes us back a couple of decades, to Vermissa Valley in the U.S. It’s a “valley of fear” under the grip of the brutal Scowrers, a miners’ brotherhood that’s turned into a network of crime, enriching itself through extortion of the mine owners. A tough guy, McMurdo, arrives, joins up and becomes our viewpoint character witnessing life in the valley of fear. When he gets word that ace Pinkerton detective Birdy Edwards is gathering information to break the Scowrers, McMurdo gathers the ringleaders to trap Edwards. When they arrive, McMurdo reveals they’re the ones in the trap, for “I am Birdy Edwards.” He’s been the hero all along (a twist which completely blindsided me — I’m sorry I’ve spoiled it for you). The Scowrers go down.

(This is loosely based on the Molly Maguires, a similar fellowship busted by the Pinkertons. There seems to be some debate whether they were really villains, dupes of a Pinkerton agent provocateur or something in between).

It’s a stronger story than the flashback in Study in Scarlet. And when we return to the present, Doyle shows again his willingness to have Holmes’ clients come to a bad end. Holmes knows Moriarty’s crime ring helped the killer (for a price, of course) and that Moriarty won’t let himself be seen to fail: Douglas and his wife need to run. They take an ocean voyage … but Douglas falls into the sea and drowns in “an accident.” After an entire novel establishing him as a good guy, it’s a shock. The only consolation is that when Holmes broods upon Moriarty’s sins at the end, we know the professor’s doom is already sealed …

I don’t know if Doyle got an itch to write Moriarty, or just thought that was an angle that would help sell the book. Either way, it’s a well-done novel with some delightful moments, such as Watson tweaking Holmes’ vanity early in the story.

Next month, Doyle’s last Holmes hort story collection.

1 Comment

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One response to “Moriarty, retconned: The Valley of Fear (#SFWApro)

  1. Pingback: Holmes flying solo: The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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